Two Caribbean retreats

Any account of the pretty little West Indian island of Nevis must take in its estimable hotels. There are eight or nine in all, small, well run, generally not expensive, and they are as much a part of the island fabric as the beaches, the historic houses, and the towering, cloud-wreathed presence of Mt. Nevis itself.

More than just choice places to stop for lunch or a swim, the small hotels of Nevis (no high-rises, 54 rooms is maximum) are noble historic and architectural objects. Most are wind-cooled little enclaves built on high ground around the ruins of old sugar mills. They are stylish but not stuffy, quiet but never dull.

When sugar was king on Nevis, 150 to 200 years ago, there were 65 sugar mills in constant operation. In that long-ago heyday Nevis called itself Queen of the Caribbees. When slavery was abolished in 1831, the sugar industry began to dry up and the mills were left to molder in the broiling West Indian sun. Only a handful remain, serving as cornerstones for some of the loveliest lodgments in the Caribbean.

Two I can speak for are Zetland Plantation and Montpelier Plantation Inn, where I divided a week's visit last winter at the peak of Nevis's tourist season , when perhaps 130 tourists were on the island. Zetland is a string of pastel-colored, frame cottages built around a conical restored mill on the cool slopes of Mt. Nevis. Owners Dick and Maureen Lupinacci lived in the mill, sat down to eat with the guests, and led excursions to the beach.

Mr. Lupinacci, a 40-ish Pennsylvanian who first caught on to the Nevis magic when he worked for the Bank of America on the larger neighboring island of St. Kitts, is doing his bit for Nevisian history and culture. He spent a perspiration-provoking Sunday morning with friends, trying to dislodge an ancient cannon they had found buried near the shore. And he was trying to get the Bank of America to provide funds for the restoration of the house in Charlestown where Alexander Hamilton was born.

Zetland Plantation seemed to run on its own, like a self-winding watch, but in truth it was in the hands of Desmond Claxton, a sort of freewheeling concierge. Mr. Claxton, known to everyone as Chubby (a boyhood nickname that stuck, although the weight didn't), can set up anything with a phone call - provided the house phone is working. This may be rented car, a flight, or a ferry to St. Kitts. Chubby was the island's reigning calypso champion, which he gracefully proved one night when Zetland took its weekly turn with the other hotels to stage a dance under the stars.

Just down the road from Zetland is Montpelier Plantation Inn, which the Lupinaccis recommend to guests as one of nine interesting walking destinations. Montpelier's 300 rolling acres are lovingly tended by its English owner, James Milnes Gaskell. Though Mr. Gaskell charmingly deflects such talk, he is said to be a relative of Queen Elizabeth. He roams about his organically grown crops (pawpaw, citrus, lettuce, tomatoes) during the day, and presides in jacket and cravat over a long candlelit table at dinnertime.

Montpelier's main building has the rock-solid feeling of a centuries-old West Indian great house, but it was built by Mr. Gaskell in the mid-1960s from stones left over from the original plantation. It was on the estate, in 1787, that Lord Nelson was married to Frances Nisbet. All that remains, on a quiet hillside a few hundred yards from the rebuilt hotel, is a cement tablet commemorating the event and two stone gates of the original house.

Montpelier has 16 cottages, comfortable if not posh, and its rates are typical of Nevis plantation hotels: $135 a day for two in the high winter season , including breakfast and dinner; down to $85 a day after April 15.

Another lapsed sugar plantation in the Zetland-Montpelier league is Golden Rock, a gorgeous jungle of a place on the south slopes of Mt. Nevis. Golden Rock has a string of aqua and yellow cottages built around a vine-covered mill (with a rentable room) and other old plantation buildings. Not far away, also occupying a rarefied site on Mt. Nevis above the so-called butterfly line (meaning no insects) is the 12-room Croneys Old Manor Estate. On the grounds a disused mill bares its rusty red hardware to the sun.

Perhaps the plushest, certainly the most storied, hostelry on Nevis is Nisbet Plantation - not up in the hills, but set back comfortably from Hurricane Point on the north shore behind a long allee of coconut palms. From without, the Nisbet great house looks like a venerable white lake cottage; inside, it is a delightful, rambling lounge and dining room with straw awnings, plank floors, and floral-print upholstery, where Somerset Maugham would look at ease. The 16 cottages lay amid the breezy shelter of the coconut groves.

The three other hotels on Nevis are not bolstered by ancient sugar mills, but they are no less fetching in their way. The Cliff Dwellers boasts a stunning oceanside plot with a view to the backside of St. Kitts; a huge 60-by-90-foot eggplant-shape pool, and the proximity of Nevis's only golf course - really just a single hole set in one immaculate green, but with five different tees so it can be played as a 5-holer.

Pinneys Beach (with 54 rooms, the monster of Nevis hotels) and the nearby 31 -room Rest Haven have two things in common that most of the others cannot boast: reasonable room rates (as low as $80 at Pinneys, $70 at Rest Haven, in season) and a long, lovely beach at their doorstep. Need I say more?

Practical information: For more advice on Nevis and its hotels consult your travel agent or write to the island's United States representative, Mel Henville , Eastern Caribbean Tourist Association, 220 East 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

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